Labour and Safety in a Natural Resource Economy
Parkland Institute Oil and Democracy Lecture Series
24 May 2012, Edmonton
Bob Barnetson, Associate Professor
Labour Relations, Athabasca University
Good evening. What I’d like to talk to you about this evening are workplace injuries in Alberta—specifically why Alberta has so many injuries and why the government does nothing about it. I understand there’ll be a question period at the end, but I’m also happy to take questions (or speeches disguised as questions—if that’s the kind of crowd this is) during my presentation. But let’s start out with me asking you some questions. Has anyone here ever been injured at work?
That’s pretty typical of the responses I get when I ask that question—a fair number of injuries with a mix of severity. Anyone want to guess how many workplace injuries there are each year in Alberta?
Okay, put your hands up if you think there are at least 25,000 injuries a
My estimate is that there are about 500,000 workplace injuries in Alberta each year. Which is a staggering number in a workforce of about 2 million. What’s really interesting about this is that the government never talks about these injuries.
Government Injury Statistics
Each year, the government reports about 150 occupational fatalities and around 50,000 serious workplace injuries—and that’s it. No other injuries exist if you look at government documents and press releases. Yet that is a gross understatement of the true level of injury.
WCB stats show us that an additional 100,000 or so injuries requiring medical aid—a trip to the doctor. The government knows about these injuries, but they just never mention them. So right off the bat, we see that the true level of injury in Alberta is at least 150,000 injuries per year.
We also need to account for the 13% or so of workers not covered by WCB. Their injuries aren’t recorded in the WCB claim stats the government uses because they can’t file a WCB claim. That takes us to about 175,000 injuries a year. Then we need to factor in the 40% of reportable injuries that aren’t reported, for a variety of reasons. That takes us to about 250,000 injuries a year—or five times the level of injury the government talks about.
We then need to factor in injuries which don’t have to be reported. These are minor injuries—a cut or a burn--where workers just basically tough it out. Yeah, these are minor injury but they are still injuries that we might prefer to avoid. And they are injuries we get because our employer put certain hazards in the workplace—like sharp knives in hot soapy water in a restaurant, for example.
There is no good way to estimate the frequency of minor injuries. My guess is that they are very common and likely the overall injury total is around 500,000 injuries a year. You’ll note that I’ve excluded psychological injuries—such as those caused by stress—so the real number is going to be even higher.
These numbers tell us a three things:
- 1. Alberta workplaces are extremely unsafe.
- 2. Alberta’s government consistently understates the level of injury—by a factor of 10.
- 3. Alberta’s occupational health and safety system is a failure.
The question then becomes, why?
Lack of Enforcement
At a basic level, Alberta workplaces are unsafe because of widespread employer non-compliance with Alberta’s Occupational Health and Safety Code. For example, in 2011, the government announced a safety inspection blitz in residential construction. Despite knowing government inspectors were coming, the majority of the 387 employers inspected were found to have safety violations on their worksites. And a quarter of them had violations so serious there were stop-work or stop-use orders issued. This is fairly typical of inspection results.
This degree of employer non-compliance reflects anemic government enforcement. Employers know there is almost no chance they will be caught violating the rules. For example, on average, workplaces are inspected less than once every 14 years in Alberta. If you call in a safety violation, it can take safety inspectors up to 18 days to respond. So there is really no real chance of an employer getting caught.
Employers also know that, if they do get caught, there is no penalty. Most of the time, they just get ordered to remedy the violation. Alberta does prosecute a handful of employers each year—typically when the employer has killed or seriously maimed a worker. But the fines for this are levied years after the event and are tax deductable (i.e., tax-payer subsidized). And a good lawyer can get the fine paid to an employer-sponsored safety organization—that is to say, the tax-payer subsidized fine can be paid to other employers to do safety work the employer should have been doing in the first place.
As a result of this dynamic, employers adopt a cost-benefit approach to safety. They only prevent injuries that are cheaper to prevent than to incur. And because Alberta allows employers to externalize much of the cost associated with injuries onto workers and the taxpayer, very few injuries are “worth” preventing. Consequently, we have half a million annual injuries.
So why, then, does the government do such a crap job of enforcing it safety laws?
Why Does the Government Allow this to Happen?
There are a couple of reasons. The first is that the government faces few consequences when workers get maimed and killed. Workers who get WCB benefits worry they will lose their benefits if they speak out. In this way, compensation becomes a tool of manage worker discontent—it gives workers something to lose.
Employees outside of the WCB system worry about getting fired. When I say this, I’m often told that if people were getting fired for complaining about poor safety, it would be all over the press. That’s wrong for two reasons. First, people aren’t being fired, they are being subtly threatened with it and pressured to stay quiet. Second, the press doesn’t care.
We have a story from just this week where a cleaner was sexually assaulted by a coworker on the job at MacEwan University. She told her boss. And her boss fired both her and her mother. Interestingly—this story got zero media play despite the compelling narrative and the Service Employees International Union held a press conference to publicize it.
Inadequate enforcement also reflects that Alberta has a weak labour movement. For sixty years, the government has enacted laws making it hard to unionize in order to keep workers cheap and docile for employers. By contrast, Alberta has a powerful employer lobby. You hear them howl every time a minimum-wage increase is mooted and they are often to stall or turn back such an increase. Alberta politicians know better than to cross powerful employers.
Look at the 2007 royalty review. Powerful employers didn’t like it, so threaten to constrain oil production, which cuts government revenue, threatens job and caused a massive downward spiral in government popularity. Then they start funding the Wild Rose to get an even more compliant government—even after the Tories backed off. You combine that stick with the carrot of political donations and the enough oil revenue for the government to buy off problems like rural depopulation or labour unrest and you have public policy that serves the ends of business.
Regulatory Capture of Alberta’s OHS system
The upshot of this is Alberta’s OHS system has been captured by employers. In effect, the state agency that is meant to act in the public interest instead is acting in the interests of employers.
Most visibly, the health and safety system is completely ineffective at preventing workplace injury--which is its raison d’être). Instead, it allows employers to organize work unsafely (because that is usually the cheapest way to do so) and thereby transfer production costs to workers in the form of injury.
Alberta’s OHS system is also largely funded by employers—another characteristics of regulatory capture. In 2009, Albert spent about $23 million on injury prevention, of which nearly $22 million came from employer premiums transferred to the government from WCB. If the government suddenly lowered the boom on employers, do you think the employer-dominated workers’ compensation board would keep the money flowing?
Alberta is increasingly emphasizes partnerships with industry-funded safety associations. This allows employers to play a formal role in determining safety policy and standards. This has delayed tighter standards and focused attention on programs designed to give employers WCB premium reductions when they cut injury costs. Whether this creates safer workplaces or just encourages employers to hide injuries is an open question.
The government has also spent a lot of time blaming workers for their injuries. The most recent example is the 2008 Bloody Lucky video campaign. The videos clearly portray workers as the cause of their own injuries. For example, one video shows a shoe-store employee climbing a rickety ladder in high heels, reaching for some stock (which is stacked precariously), falling backwards, breaking an unguarded light fixture and then falling onto the glass.
The impression the video conveys is that the worker was at fault. In fact, the employer told her what shoes to wear, gave her a defective ladder, stacked the stock up high and unstably and failed to guard the light fixture. While the proximate cause of injury was the worker’s behaviour, the root caused was dangerous job design.
Workplace Injury and Democracy
When you look at OHS in Alberta, what I see is a system that doesn’t prevent injury. I see a system that allows employers to organize work unsafely and provides employers with liability protection in the form of workers’ compensation. And I see a system that gives government political cover by blaming workers for their injuries.
This system undermines the right of Albertan to a safe and healthy work environment. This arrangement is not democratic. And it’s not in the public interest. Rather, it reflects collusion between the state and powerful employers to maintain the status quo regardless of the cost to workers.